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The hot response culture (why reason and compassion should prevail)

By Mal Fletcher - posted Monday, 24 May 2021

Your smartphone has seven million times the memory and 100,000 times the processing power of the guidance computer onboard Apollo 11. Have you wondered what we're collectively doing with all that power? Are we spreading more heat than light, or finding constructive solutions?

These are important questions, given the range of hugely significant challenges - and opportunities - we face. And especially so in the age of COVID-19, where we rely so heavily on digital communications to maintain friendships, stay informed and explore schools of opinion.

On present evidence, it seems many of us believe that the best reaction is an over-heated one, whatever the debate at hand. Calm and carefully reasoned deliberation appears to have been devalued, in deference to what I'm going to call a "hot response culture" (HRC).


This is most obvious in the world of social media, where hyper-emotional responses often appear to reign supreme, especially on contentious but important issues.

In the UK, online conversations about Brexit and, more recently, gender and race illustrate this well. (More on this shortly.) Doubtless, the imminent US election will provide further proof of the potency of the HRC and its capacity to entrench prejudices.

According to several studies over the past decade, we may have become so enamoured with emotional over-reaction that we're permanently changing the way our brains work.

In her book Stop Overreacting, therapist Dr Judith Siegel used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track how the brain diverges from its normal functions during an emotional over-reaction.

She found that in a normal reaction the areas of the brain responsible for judgement and self-awareness light up at the same time as those responsible for fight-or-flight reactions. However, when we overreact, only the lower function areas fire up, which means we're in danger of acting without proper judgement.

In line with this, some neuroscientists express concern that a cultural trend toward emotional immaturity, combined with rapid response technology, will permanently alter the way our brains process events.


Some predict that we may soon become a generation desperately in need of empathy and wisdom, but unable to express either. These warnings have been in place for several years, but we are arguably much closer to this dystopian scenario than we've ever been.

During the Brexit debate, social media provided a useful platform for discussions about the pros and cons of a British departure from the EU. Over time, as confirmation bias and information loops kicked it, people grew more entrenched in their beliefs and less likely to respond cordially to even respectful dissent.

Once the first phase of Brexit was initiated, the ardour of online debate cooled relatively quickly. Yet the HRC hasn't lost its heat. It has simply found new points of focus.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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